The Nunavut territory: populist, conservative, conflicted

“Whether the promise of Nunavut set out by the visionary Inuit leaders who made the land claim and the territory a reality – a promise of fundamental importance to all Nunavummiut – will be fulfilled remains an open question.”

You can find that quotation in the last paragraph of the academic paper embedded at the bottom of this post, entitled “Managing the Moraine: Political Economy and Political Culture Approaches to Assessing the Success of Nunavut,” co-written by political scientists Ailsa Henderson and Graham White. Though most people I know would likely say the promise of Nunavut is not even close to fulfillment, Henderson and White take care not to jump to such a hasty conclusion.

If you don’t mind hacking your way through a thicket of dense scholarly prose, the 23-page paper’s worth reading. Though the title promises an evaluation of the Nunavut project’s success, it’s actually an academic discussion on how to perform such an evaluation.

Election night in Nunavut, Oct. 25, 1993: Paul Quassa, then the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., and Dennis Patterson, then the MLA for Iqaluit and now the Conservative Senator for Nunavut, after learning that the Progressive Conservative candidate for the old Nunatsiaq riding, Leena Evic-Twerdin, finished a distant second that night with only 20.5 per cent of the vote. The incumbent Liberal MP, Jack Anawak, won with nearly 70 per cent. But even if their timing was off, their instincts were accurate -- because Leona Aglukkaq's victory in 2008 has since shown that the reconstituted Conservative Party of Canada may have become a ideal fit for Nunavut's socially conservative and populist political culture. (NUNATSIAQ NEWS ARCHIVE PHOTO)

They present two ways of doing this. One, based on the “political culture” approach, would look at attitudes, behaviour, values and so on. They tell us that it’s by means of this approach that the assertion and protection of an Inuit group identity within government and other Nunavut institutions is best evaluated.

The other, “political economy,” would look at class divisions, social forces and the distribution of wealth, influence and political power. They tell us it’s by means of this approach that the Nunavut project’s record on economic and social issues is best evaluated.

Since your humble content provider brings with him a liberal and mildly social democratic bias to such discussions, the political economy approach is far more interesting to him than the other.

So when I read this paragraph, I nodded my head with approval, because it poses crucial questions for Nunavut:

Conventional political economy approaches are clearly relevant to understanding important elements of Nunavut politics. In particular, the difficult social and economic conditions of many Nunavummiut raise critical questions about the state’s role in providing for the people’s material well-being. In addition, a political economy approach highlights an important question about where Nunavut is heading in terms of equality of economic condition: is the land claim and the creation of Nunavut producing a class division within Nunavut society between a small political-economic Inuit elite doing well for itself and a large Inuit underclass struggling with poverty and social dysfunction?

But to answer this question, you have to look directly at Nunavut’s political culture in a clear, explicit manner that calls things by their right names. If you do this, I think it’s possible to argue that there’s only one name for Nunavut’s dominant political tendency: populist conservatism.

Unlike Marxism or fascism, conservatism can’t be called an ideology. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of conservatism is a deep suspicion of ideology. This is why I use the word “tendency,” by which I mean an inclination to feel, think and act according to certain values and attitudes.

A conservative, then, is someone inclined to act in accordance with received tradition. Conservatives tend to value established social hierarchies, the patriarchal family, religious faith and the moral codes of the past. And since conservatives often view society as a delicate, finely balanced organism, they tend to view radical social policies with deep skepticism. This is often the case when such policies pose a threat to the traditional distribution of power within families and other institutions, or if they encourage the transgression of revered moral codes.

For this reason, conservatives tend to favour limited government, though not always. This inclination often leads conservatives to favour the decentralization or devolution of power from central governments to regional and local authorities, within which they tend to place more trust.

The populist variety of conservatism includes all this, but with one major exception. Unlike traditional conservatives, populists regard social hierarchies with deep hostility, especially the alleged elites who sit at the top. Populists almost always define themselves by their hostility to the paternalism of “elites,” especially educated ones, and valorize the purported common sense of regular people. In this respect, the assertion of aboriginal traditional knowledge, or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, also arises from a quasi-populist impulse.

Is this starting to sound like the Nunavut project?

Consider the phrases so many Nunavummiut use to express their principles: “respect for tradition,” “family values,” “honouring our elders,” “preserving our culture.”

Also consider the widespread hostility to government you hear everywhere in Nunavut, especially from middle-aged and elderly men. At the countless regional and community meetings I’ve covered over the past two and a half decades and in conversations with numerous people, including friends, “gavamat” usually emerges as the enemy.

Because it’s the government that imposes hated quotas on hunting polar bears. It’s government social workers who remove children from families. It’s government that makes you pay the GST and it’s government that encourages bad women to abandon their families and flee into family violence shelters. It’s government that slaughtered all those sled dogs. Whether it’s the government of Canada or the government of Nunavut, it’s government that poses the greatest threat to family, tradition and identity.

On specific social and political issues, many Nunavut residents tend to take deeply conservative positions, especially on abortion, same-sex marriage and the role of women in the family. Nunavut residents tend to favour the devolution of power from central governments to local authorities, a policy direction advocated by right-wing governments in many countries. Many Nunavut residents are deeply religious, and some have created an indigenous form of evangelical Christianity that incorporates the magical ways of pre-contact shamanism. And despite Nunavut’s widespread poverty, many elected officials, including people at the highest levels of the previous legislative assembly, object to even using the word “poverty.”

All this suggests that a strong populist conservative political culture will continue to grow within Nunavut. As to why it should exist, I believe the answer lies in the traumas of the 1950s and 1960s, when, after many, many decades of neglect, the federal government built schools, nursing stations and settled communities within far too brief a period of time. When government is held responsible for inflicting unbearable psychic pain and wounds that remain unhealed across the generations, government will never become your friend. Geographic and cultural isolation, combined with limited schooling, also contribute to this tendency.

So to recover the power Inuit felt they lost during that period, some younger Inuit — aided in the early years by members of a non-aboriginal organization called the Indian-Eskimo Association of Canada, renamed as the Canadian Association in Support of Native Peoples — conceived the Nunavut project.

They succeeded. But an unintentional consequence of their success is that by April 1, 1999, they had created more of the thing that so many Inuit hated, and still hate: government.

So when Henderson and White note that “the difficult social and economic conditions of many Nunavummiut raise critical questions about the state’s role in providing for the people’s material well-being,” they may have identified Nunavut’s defining conflict.

(As an aside, I actually wonder if the “moraine” metaphor in the title expresses what Henderson and White intended to say. The word “moraine” means a kind of ridge formed by big piles of rocks and pebbles left behind by a receding glacier. Moraines are solid, stable structures. So I wonder if they actually intended to say “morass,” a word that may describe Nunavut’s current condition more accurately.)

This entry was posted in Arctic, Canada, circumpolar world, culture, Inuit, Leona Aglukkaq, News, Nunavut and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Nunavut territory: populist, conservative, conflicted

  1. Bob Weber says:

    Cogent and, I think, on target, Jim. Nunavummiut fear and distrust government while looking to it at the same time. I’ll take a read through Graham’s paper; thanks for pointing it out. Best regards,


  2. James Bell says:

    Thanks Bob — you’re very kind…

Comments are closed.